Five Things I’ve Learned in Buenos Aires

Sierra Funk is a student at Old Dominion University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Sierra is currently studying abroad in Buenos Aires on a Fall 3 program.

If there’s one thing about Buenos Aires, it’s that she is charismatic; she will draw you in like a moth to her flame until you’ve started saying words that you used to make fun of your friends for. Okay, maybe that’s just me, but I’m already halfway through my semester abroad (Unlike lots of the new students coming in from ISA, school here starts the last week of July!), and I’ve started to pick up on some habits. I can feel myself transforming into a Porteña like some kind of werewolf.

Without further ado, here are a few things I’ve learned at the halfway point:

1.)  How to cross the street.

One of the most terrifying places in Buenos Aires: a traffic circle.

This seems so trivial, but I think of every skill I’ve gained in Buenos Aires, even including the language, this is the most important. Forget everything you learned in driving school; here, buses and cars, certainly not pedestrians, have the right of way. In fact, buses think they’re pretty much invincible (to be fair, they are). They run red lights, they turn in the outside lane and come near enough to the curb to make you start seeing your life flash before your eyes.

This is the secret: Wait for the light to turn (I know, it’s hard) and then follow an older person. No one will try to bulldoze their way past someone who’s elderly; it commands respect, and Porteños certainly respect their elders. Follow them, strike up a chat with them, carry their bags for them. No one will try to kill you. Bam. Magic.

2.) I am not a gringo.

My expert Porteña imitation, on a subway car from the early 20th century.

Whether you’re trying to blend in by taking selfies like the Porteños on the train or outright wearing your American pride right on your sleeve, you are not a gringo. That’s right. No one here calls you gringos, as my friend from Buenos Aires emphatically told me. I am a shankí. That sounds like some sort of prison weapon, but it’s actually an Argentinianization of “Yankee“. It’s either a compliment like an affectionate nickname, or an angry insult. I can’t tell you which. Easy ways for people to think you’re shankí: wear a baseball cap, speak loud English, try to ask for a Gatorade. (It’s not “Gay-tour-aide”.) If my friend from Buenos Aires is reading this, yes I am going to type shankí with an sh. It’s actually spelled with a y. Which leads me to number three…

3.) Picking up on the accident is unavoidable.

The Porteño accent is unique for it’s strange words (Che!) and it’s stranger pronunciations of things. Namely two sounds in Spanish, the y and the ll, become “shh“. It’s mostly heard in words like calle (“ca-ye”, but here, “cashe”), or the ubiquitous yo (Sho! Sho. Sho soy. ) I make fun of people for it all the time, and then I realized I’m doing it.

4.) Mate is the best thing in the world.

This is my new best friend.

Yerba mate (sherba ma-teh) is a type of tea–and that is the only time I will ever say that, because I have been chastised by my Porteña friend for calling it such–that’s incredibly popular here in Argentina. The Argentinians share their love of mate with the Uruguayans, and they are passionate about it–a great way to spend a summer afternoon is to toma un mate with your friends and sit in the sunshine gossiping about what have you. You drink it out of a gourd that’s been carefully cured with the leaves of the mate, with a metal straw. The yerba has all kinds of great properties to it; it’s healthy, helps you lose weight, and is even caffeinated! I used to think it was adorable how you’d see people on the street with a bag carrying a thermos of hot water over one shoulder and a mate gourd in their hands, just minding their own business, and maybe I’d have a little private giggle over these Porteños and their mate, but now….

My friend introduced me to mate at her table and now I can’t stop drinking it. When I wake up freezing cold, all I want is to have a mate. When I’m hungry, I can make a mate. When I’m tired, I want a mate. What am I going to do when I get back to the US? (The answer is probably die. Or gain back the weight I’ve lost.)

5.) Porteños are chatty; so relax and enjoy it.

One of my first huge fears upon coming here was that everyone was going to make fun of my Spanish. Aside from being obviously American (I have blonde hair, blue eyes, and I smile at everyone–apparently that’s my real curse), it’s been two years since I’ve taken a proper Spanish course and I was scared to death to even open my mouth at first. For someone who’s naturally extroverted and friendly, it was strange to me to not be able to talk to cashiers, people on buses, basically anyone who would listen to me.

So I started doing it here. And you know, I’ve never in my entire time in Argentina had someone make a face, or act like I’m stupid, because I spoke to them in my choppy Spanish. The Argentinians love to talk, and they love foreigners, especially if they speak even a little Spanish. I’ve been asked about where I’m from in the US (and if I’m best friends with Obama–I always want to say yes.), about my family, my dog, sports, basically everything you can think of. People want to tell you about when they went to the US, ask if you like Argentina, and it’s amazing. I’ve learned so much from random conversations on the bus–so I guess this last thing I’ve learned comes with a little bit of advice. Don’t be afraid to jump in headfirst. Everything will be okay.

Until next time! Chau, nos vemos!

4 thoughts

  1. I only spent a few days in BA and wow… crossing the street was terrifying. I definitely did not pick up the skill, I just hoped not to die every time I had to cross. I tried to like mate (and also got in trouble for calling it ‘tea’!) but just couldn’t get there. And fyi… I did get playfully called a gringita by one local! :) Nice article!

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